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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Eating books, reading food (Reprint)

Eating books, reading food
By Jessica Zafra Updated September 14, 2008 12:00 AM
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Like many single urbanites, I reside in an apartment that is too small to contain my life. Therefore I live at the mall. As far as I’m concerned, the mall is an extension of my house. In other words I am a mallcat. (I do not like the other term. Why would I refer to myself as vermin that carries pestilence? Not to mention that I love cats.)

Naturally I want my house to be a well-designed combination of the utilitarian and the aesthetic — comfortable, elegant, and spacious. It has to be a place where I can have business meetings with serious people, and then loaf with my friends. It has to have nice, clean bathrooms, because I don’t want to torture myself. Bonus points if there are trees and growing things on the premises to assure me that even if I am inside a complex of steel, concrete, and glass, I am surrounded by nature. Don’t forget that the place must offer great views for people-watching. I like to think of myself as a professional student of human nature.

The mall I live in has to meet nearly all the requirements of my daily life — groceries, cat supplies, movies, music, clothes and accessories, laundry, banking and bill-paying, computers, electronics and toys, repairs and alterations, and a lot of other things that don’t occur to me right now, but which should be there and ready when I need them.

Then there are my two absolute musts: Books and food, in that order.

My mall must have large bookstores well-stocked with both new titles and classics, bestsellers and more esoteric fare. Being an extension of my house, it must have restaurants that can function as my kitchen and dining room. Sure, I like trying out whatever fine dining establishments the foodies are raving about at the moment, but what I really need are homey, dependable restaurants where I can eat every single day without expiring from boredom or bankrupting myself.

Because they meet these and other, slightly stranger requirements, the Ayala Malls have been my default address for the last decade (Longer, if you consider that I’ve been going to the Ayala Malls since early childhood). Every time I run into people I know at the mall, they inevitably joke, “I always see you here, is this where you live?” When I say “Yes,” they think I’m kidding.

My typical day at the mall goes like this. I attend to the most pressing chores — ATM, laundry, whatever — and then I have lunch. In Greenbelt 3 I usually eat at Cafe Bola, which serves my favorite comfort food. I don’t even have to consult the menu, I know everything on it; the specials and new offerings are on the blackboard. There’s rice with fried dilis and mongo, laing on rice or pasta, fried lechong paksiw, sinampalukang manok, and lamb caldereta. There’s the cheese pimiento sandwich, and the Spam and egg on pan de sal.

Alternatively, I go to the dependable Chinese restaurant Ling Nam at Greenbelt 1 for their very good fried chicken, fish fillet with ampalaya, or siopao. Via Mare, which has branches in Greenbelt 1 and 3, serves an excellent lugaw with toppings, dinuguan at puto, and bibingka. Sentro in Greenbelt 3 is rightly famous for its corned beef sinigang, but I usually have the galunggong and the ampalaya.

Yes, I can have these dishes at home, but that is exactly the point: the mall is my home.

After lunch I head to Powerbooks in Greenbelt 3 to see what new books have arrived. In the ’70s and ’80s, you had to rely on friends and relatives abroad to send you the latest titles, or buy them on your trips. If you saw a book you wanted on a store shelf, you had to grab it immediately, or someone else would buy it and it would vanish forever. In the mid-’90s, with the opening of Powerbooks, our reading choices increased dramatically. Best of all, books are cheaper at Powerbooks and its parent company, National Book Store, than practically anywhere else on earth. Look at the retail price in American dollars or British pounds at the back of a book, then convert it into pesos using the day’s rate. I can assure you that the National Book Store/Powerbooks price is lower than that. And if you go during the sales, it’s literary geek heaven. By the way, National Book Store and Powerbooks carry all my books. Support your local author.

Afterwards, I take my book to Sala Bistro at Greenbelt 3 and read it over coffee and home-made honeycomb ice cream, or the spectacular strawberry meringue sundae. The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf next door can be depended on for double espressos, chai tea lattes, and a selection of pastries. If I’m with friends, we repair to Travel Cafe in Greenbelt 5 and share their giant halo-halo, which takes four or five people to finish.

When I’m in Bonifacio High Street, I usually spend a couple of hours lurking among the shelves at Fully Booked. Five floors of books, graphic novels, CDs and DVDs — when the bookstore first opened, I would start hyperventilating at the Fiction section. These days my favorite spot is the Biography section, which has big armchairs so you can browse in comfort. If you spot me while I’m looking for an armchair and you happen to be sitting in one, please get up. After hours of examining books I need a sugar fix, so I go to the Starbucks on the third floor for a bagel and latte. Or I walk down the street to Krispy Kreme, where often I don’t even have to buy a doughnut because they give them away.

At Serendra across the street is A Different Bookstore, a bookshop with a quirkier, more sophisticated selection. You know how you sometimes wish you could discuss books with the people who sell them? This is the place. Six years ago, long before anyone had ever heard of it, I bought my copy of Atonement by Ian McEwan at A Different Bookstore in Glorietta. I’m still gloating about my purchase. Having fed your mind, you can pop over to Mary Grace for apple pie and hot chocolate.

By now you will have reached the conclusion that I spend too much time at the mall. You would be right, but I must point out that this time is used productively — on chores, books, and food. I should add that I get bored easily, but there’s always something new at the Ayala Malls to keep me occupied. That is why I live there.

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